Celebrating Freedom

by Tokunbo Awoshakin

On Thursday July 4th, Americans celebrated the first Independent day after the events of September 11, 2001. Hundreds of thousands came out in the intense heat to commemorate the nation’s 226th birthday.

President Bush personally led the commemoration in Ripley West Virginia when he paid tribute to God and Country with a rousing rendition of the Pledge of Allegiance that a U.S. court recently declared to be unconstitutional.

It was a celebration amid a slew of vague warnings about possible terrorist attacks. A celebration that witnessed a few suspicious incidents, including the arrest of the son of Saddam Hussein, a shooting in L.A. Airport and the crash landing of an airplane into some celebrants.

Expectedly, patriotism swirled in the air. So also did F-16 fighter jets. Combat air patrols over Washington D.C. New York and other key cities were revived in preparation for the celebration of “Freedom” which the terrorists attempted to nip in the bud last September.

In the skies over Washington and other cities, a new fireworks display called “The American Tribute” made it’s debut. It was a spectacular sight that consisted of a big burst of red, then silence, then a burst of white, then silence, then a burst of blue, all colours in the American flag. The Washington fire works cost $110,000.

As the fire works swirled into the skies and made their big bangs, not a few Americans and other residents were apprehensive. The sounds had the familiar ring of the usual July 4th fire works, but it also brought images of the unpleasant memories of the morning of last September.

Shortly before the Independence Day, warnings of another attack had gone round. No one knew what to expect. Cyber attack, air attack, Anthrax and attack of the subway and water systems were some of the fears that everyone living in America had to live with as they waited to demonstrate that they are a free people.

On the ground at the National Mall, in Washington D.C., miles of rust-red snow fences and 2,500 security officers were on alert to restrict partygoers’ movements. Although Freedom was on people’s minds, colourful security bands were given to thousands of revelers – to prove that they have cleared key checkpoints, some with metal detectors.

In obvious preparation for the fear of terrorist attack on the Metro subway system, The Mall’s nearest Metro stop – which 91,000 people used last year on the 4th – was closed. Bomb-sniffing dogs were on patrol. Unlike last year, Americans were also not allowed to bring drinks coolers or other big items into the mall.

The most visible security measure is the parallel set of snow fences – about 10 yards apart – snaking around the Mall. Officers stood between the fences to ensure unscreened people don’t sneak in. Similarly, every object and person at the usually wide open Mall was checked at 35 entrances by police with magnetic-wands. Concerned about bridge bombings, authorities also told boaters on the Potomac not to float under overpasses. Of course some did.

The security concern and the celebration amid fear was not only in the American capital. In all other cities it was the sight of patrol officers, sniffer dogs and F-16 jet hovering over the skies and watching over thousands of people that marked the hot July 4th celebration.

Although New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg told celebrants to “relax and let our law enforcement professionals do the worrying for you,” it was obvious that until the final bang of the biggest and most colourful firework near the twin towers used to be, many were just not at ease.

Perhaps those that were afraid had good reasons to be. The jitters of July 4th were sparked by a series of mostly vague government warnings as well as two specific concerns – a threat against Las Vegas and reports that a boatload of Al Qaeda members was spotted off California. The FBI’s statement indicated that the unsubstantiated report “warrants increased vigilance.”

The fact that there is at least some history of Al Qaeda strikes on symbolic dates also serves as a reason for fear. Note that the East Africa embassy bombings on Aug. 7, 1998, came on the anniversary of U.S. troops landing in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Shield in 1990.

Similarly, domestic terrorists also have a history of striking on key dates – or at high-profile venues. Timothy McVeigh’s Oklahoma City bomb exploded April 19, the same date the siege at Waco, Texas, ended – and the Revolutionary War began. An American, Eric Rudolph, is the prime suspect in the high-profile 2000 Atlanta Olympics bombing.

There were some unpleasant incidents. Firstly, in Los Angeles a gunman killed two people, wounded three others and terrified thousands of holiday travelers in morning of July 4th when he began shooting inside a terminal at Los Angeles International Airport in a brazen, mysterious attack.

Moments after he opened fire, the gunman was fatally shot by security officers of El Al Israel Airlines. The incident led to the suspension of all flights from the L.A. Airport for the day.

Shortly before then, a man believed to be the step son of Saddam Hussein was arrested for entering the United States illegally with the aim of coming to a flight school. The fact the Saddam may be the next target of President Bush’s war on terrorism made the arrest a headliner.

Generally, July 4th 2002 was a clear success. Americans and residents of other nationals all enjoyed the holiday by taking their family out to the malls and to see the spectacular musical parades and concerts. When the final colourful firework swirled into the skies and opened up to reveal a blue, red and white smiling face, everyone heaved a sigh of relief. Freedom has again triumphed over fear. God bless America.

This article was first published in The Anchor Newspaper of Nigeria.

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